The Kennedy Legacy

JFK with Caroline on the Honey Fitz (presidential yacht), 1963
Wikimedia Commons

09 August 2017 |  | JSTOR Daily


John F. Kennedy was born 100 years ago this year. While he lived Kennedy was a bona fide celebrity; as good looking, youthful, and wealthy as any Hollywood actor, he seemed to embody the promise of the American Dream. In death, Kennedy became just as big a myth as those he regularly invoked in his famous rhetoric.

His election promised adventure and progress as he invited Americans to join him as pioneers on the edge of a New Frontier. The shocking suddenness and violence of his death appeared to lay waste to all those dreams.

The ensuing birth of the Camelot mythology brought with it the sense that a huge potential had been thwarted. However, Kennedy left behind a political legacy, as well as one of grace and style. Although Jackie Kennedy insisted his era was irrevocably lost, out of Kennedy’s death grew a legend, one that would be used by later politicians to rally people around their agendas.

The evocation of the Kennedy legacy as a political tool began immediately after the president’s death. President Johnson, addressing a joint session of Congress two days after the funeral, relayed his desire to continue Kennedy’s work.

“Now,” he stated, “the ideas and ideals which he so nobly represented must and will be translated into effective action.” Johnson was specific, calling on Congress to pass Kennedy’s civil rights and tax bills. The fledgling president claimed that to pass the former especially would be the greatest tribute to Kennedy’s memory.

Johnson repeatedly evoked Kennedy’s memory, immortalized in the “minds and memories of mankind,” as a reminder not just of what had been lost, but of what could be achieved in his name.

Jack and Jackie arrive in Dallas, 1963 (Wikimedia Commons)


When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, Johnson once again memorialized Kennedy, the result of which, the historian Herbert S. Parmet suggests, was that Kennedy became “the apostle of racial and religious equality, compassion toward the underprivileged, and a champion of democracy.”

Johnson banked on this image, recognizing the power the Kennedy myth had to inspire the still-mourning public, and to lend his own vision, at least initially, a little of the idealistic radiance of the New Frontier.

Johnson’s alignment of Kennedy’s legacy with such sweeping and monumental legislation contributed to the potent image of Kennedy as a progressive liberal. The historical reassessment that came in the following years showed this to be somewhat inaccurate. His penchant for pragmatism, his reluctance to tackle civil rights for fear of alienating white southern voters, and his essentially conservative fiscal values showed the Kennedy presidency to be one of caution and gradual reform.

Speechwriter Theodore Sorensen told Newsweek in 1983 that Kennedy had “never identified himself as a liberal; it was only after his death that they began to claim him as one of them.”

Indeed, Kennedy had often been referred to as a conservative Democrat early in his political career. But if it was difficult to pin down Kennedy’s ideological beliefs during his life, it’s even harder after his death. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. reported that Kennedy once remarked that the categories of liberalism and conservatism no longer applied. This is what Parmet refers to as Kennedy’s “disavowal of ideological rigidity.” It created a legacy that could be co-opted by either major party.

Reagan invoked Kennedy to justify tax cuts, much to the chagrin of many Democrats. In a budget speech to the nation in 1985, Reagan lamented the amount of spending, suggesting that things had deteriorated in comparison to the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. “During those Kennedy years,” he stated, “there was a tax cut proposed similar to our cut.” Despite the fact that the tax cut actually was implemented by Johnson, Reagan attributed it directly to Kennedy as a way of legitimizing his own proposal.

The evocation of history serves to reassure people that what may seem like uncharted territory has been managed before. Toward the end of the speech, Reagan urged Americans to “remember the words of young Jack Kennedy:” “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

In a 2004 article for SlateDavid Greenberg suggested that it was with Reagan that republicans began forcefully invoking Kennedy’s name to portray tax cuts as “part of a grand bipartisan tradition.” Younger Democrats, who experienced their political awakening during the Kennedy era, were shaken by Reagan’s win into believing they needed to take a more centrist approach.

A new kind of Democrat emerged, more independent of the party’s historical association with New Deal liberalism: politicians like Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart—Parmet refers to as “Kennedy’s children.” (Others referred to them as neoliberals.) When Randall Rothenberg brought the term to widespread use in a 1982 article for Esquire, he stated that these Democrats had “consciously modeled their political presence on JFK’s vision.” Hart and Dukakis could not make it to the Oval Office, but Bill Clinton’s election saw a Democrat of this new centrist mold rise to power.

By now the idea of Kennedy as a progressive liberal had been dismantled enough that Clinton could co-opt him to promote his Third Way. Clinton’s campaign literature contained a photo of him, age sixteen, meeting President Kennedy in the Rose Garden. Al Gore was also explicit in his allusions, announcing in his 1992 acceptance speech that “the time has come again, the time for a new generation of leadership,” echoing Kennedy’s 1960 campaign slogan word for word.

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